Some Kind Of Wonderful is a film in the closet. It had to be.
But not from a lack of trying.
The major studios tried to represent the LGBTQ community at the outset of the eighties with same-sex fare such as Robert Towne’s Personal Best and Arthur Miller’s Making Love. Both films lost money, and in the case of Sherry Lansing, it cost the 20th Century Fox president her job.
Even the most cursory of looks at eighties film history reveals the fallout from Lansing’s bold attempt to mainstream “alternative” lifestyles in 1982. In the interim, before Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia turned the closet knob, there were forward-think movies from the nascent indie sector (most notably, Lizzie Borden’s Born In Flames). But mostly they were niche films for a niche market, with the exception of Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts (1985), which delved into the physical side of women in love that Personal Best only hinted at.
Not unsurprisingly, Desert Hearts crossed over into the mainstream and turned a profit. But the pioneering queer cinema classic was an exception to the rule. Against this backdrop, six years into the AIDS epidemic, Some Kind Of Wonderful landed in theaters amid all disinformation about a disease that the mainstream press derogatively labeled as being “the gay plague.”
Some Kind Of Wonderful underperformed at the box office and received mixed reviews, which effectively closed the chapter on John Hughes three-year run as an auteur of teen angst. Film critic Richard Schiekel, writing for TIME, criticized the John Hughes-produced film for being “unrealistic”. The NYT’s Janet Maslin liked Some Kind Of Wonderful, yet describes Mary Stuart Masterson’s character as being “sketchy”, and goes on to write that “there is no explanation as to why Watts is so aggressively boyish.”
Maslin couldn’t quite put a finger on it. Go ask Alice.
In 1987, Alice Wu (Saving Face) was seventeen when the Howard Deusch film and formation of the Watkins Commission, the White House’s belated response to the epidemic, dovetailed. The veteran filmmaker brings Watts back to life as Ellie Chu, trading her drums for a piano, in The Half Of It, which debuted on Netflix in 2020.
“Did you see the look on his face?” Amanda Jones (Lea Thompson) marvels as she and Keith Nelson (Eric Stoltz) emerge victoriously from a house party thrown by Hardy Jens (Craig Sheffer), Amanda’s rich philandering ex, who just seconds ago was slapped silly by a woman scorned. For anybody who wished the cheerleader chose the nerd over the jock in Lucas, David Selzner’s 1986 coming-of-age film, Some Kind Of Wonderful appeared to be on the verge of completing its underdog story arc.
But then, from out of the blue, like something from The Manchurian Candidate, Amanda’s words seemingly act like a trigger on Keith, as when Rosie (Janet Leigh), the communist party’s lodestar, recites: “Maryland is a beautiful state,” to Ben Marco, a brainwashed war veteran, who can be made to say and do things against his will.
Keith’s epiphany, the sudden realization that he loves his best friend Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson) arguably, lacks the groundwork for this unilateral change of plans.
This fickle heart’s sudden 180° turn is as convincing as Eugenie Rose’s claim that she was “one of the original Chinese men who laid down the tracks.”
The Half Of It draws attention to this plot contrivance. Borrowing a page from the Greta Gerwig playbook, Alice Wu made a John Hughes film of her own, rewriting what her seventeen-year-old self felt was discernibly off. After all, you don’t stalk a girl at home, at school, render her in oils, spend your life savings on diamond earrings, order beluga caviar, kiss her on stage at an amphitheater closed to the public, and show off the painting you slaved away for months in a real art gallery, as the centerpiece of a hyper-romantic, detail-oriented date, only to think: This is Delaware.
The Half Of It repositions Watts as the main character. Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is the proxy, the only Chinese girl in Squahamish, a conservative but friendly hamlet nestled away in rural Washington. Keith Nelson and Amanda Jones have stand-ins, too. Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), a football player, fills the slot of the boy who swoons over the unattainable girl, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), the pastor’s daughter. A bizarre love triangle develops after Ellie, whose niche at high school is essay ghostwriter, composes a love letter in Paul’s name that piques Aster’s interest.
Paul has not the slightest inkling about Ellie’s sexual orientation. It never dawns on him as to why Ellie would devote all of her spare time on making a love connection for some guy she just met. In Paul’s own words, “love makes us screwy,” which is why the secular pianist accompanies Deacon Flores (Enrique Murciano), Aster’s father, from her perch on the church balcony where she can pine for the god-fearing girl with “classic bone structure” unobserved. As “Smith-Corona” communicates with “Diego Rivera”, Aster’s handle, texting her as Paul by day from the booth where she helps her widowed dad, Edwin Chu (Colin Chou), run a quaint little train station, and by night from her bedroom, staring at a luminescent screen, falling in love with the disembodied words of her other half.
For better or worse, the Information Age gave birth to a specialized lexicon, creating new words and reinventing old ones. “Hit” acquired an unforeseen meaning with the advent of the internet. A website measures its success by the number of hits it receives. Love can be expressed via icons; a pineapple a caterpillar with glasses, an owl, in combination. Ellie and Paul disagree vehemently on emojis when they make the transition from letters to text messages.
In the analog world of Some Kind Of Wonderful, to “hit” is to make contact in the traditional sense, contact that is limited to the demarcations of the physical world as when Watts hits her drums. Emblazoned on the snare of her drum kit, a heart, a symbol/cymbal, as in every beat of the heart and how fast. Watts loves Keith, but The Half Of It suggests otherwise. Alice Wu reframes Some Kind Of Wonderful with an anachronism as designing as Christine McPhereson’s bedroom decor in Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird.
During the talent show sequence, Trig Carlson (Wolfgang Novogratz), Aster’s beau, fronts a band that covers “Masquerade”, the final single off Berlin’s second album Pleasure Victim. Rock music hasn’t been at the center of youth culture in decades, but the energy radiating from the stage suggests a three-minute rip in the space-time continuum. It’s 1983. Coincidence or not, “Masquerade” was released a month after Greta Gerwig’s mom saw “her placenta fall to the floor.” Aster is also a Squahamish transplant; she’s originally from Sacramento, Gerwig’s hometown.
Watts is Keith’s best friend; his only friend, a loner just like him. They share a long history together; they know each other’s secrets. Watts could look like the other California girls, but it’s her personal choice not to. With her short-cropped hair, leather jacket, and red-fringed gloves, the entire student body presumes she’s a lesbian: The skinhead (Elias Koteas) they encounter before morning bell, the skateboarder (Scott Coffey) Watts recruits as a faux love interest to make Keith jealous, and the mean girl in the locker room (Laura Leigh Hughes), Amanda’s friend, who openly gawks and comments on Watts’ boy’s underpants.
Although Keith says: “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” neither Watts nor Keith corrects people’s impression about the, frankly, butchy-looking girl. They let the misconception stand. To his father(John Ashton), though, Keith all but outs Watts, telling Clifford that his “best friend is a tomboy.” It’s a euphemism.
Watts’ heterosexuality is unconvincing. That’s why the kiss in the street after Keith has his V8 moment feels anti-climactic.
That’s because it doesn’t surpass, let alone, equal the high romance of Amanda Jones sitting beside the artist on the observation bench, seeing herself through Keith’s eyes.
That’s your love story, right there.
But Some Kind Of Wonderful manufactures an ancillary romance as an exit strategy. Did John Hughes understand his own writing? Did he knowingly write a coded film? Unlike Watts, nobody at Squahamish High, in The Half Of It, knows Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is gay; her otherness is two-fold, the townsfolk only see that she’s Chinese. They don’t need to know anything else about her. Arguably, in Some Kind Of Wonderful, there is no subtext. Watts, in plain sight, is out; a sapphic who never gets to be sapphic because Mary Stuart Masterson and Lea Thompson never share a scene together, alone.
Aster Flores has a secret place. Quite pointedly, she invites Ellie Chu to the hot springs, located in a remote area past the city limits where Paul, and even her boyfriend knows nothing about. Sharon Van Etten’s Seventeen plays over the soundtrack as a counterpoint to Masquerade. We’re back to the future, a time when people are free to choose who they love. “If you could let me in / I could be good to you,” Van Etten sings. From whose point-of-view does that sentiment reflect? It’s Aster’s car; it’s customary that the driver is master of the songs.
At the hot springs, the pastor’s daughter notifies Ellie that they’re out of cell phone range. For awhile, they get to be Smith-Corona and Diego Rivera in the physical world. Whereas in Some Kind Of Wonderful, extra-diegetical forces prevent the viewer from knowing the same Watts as her celluloidal contemporaries, in The Half Of It , it’s the mimesis of religious-based intolerance that stands in the way between Aster’s public and private selves.
When Aster returns from her netherworld misadventure with Ellie, she needs reassurance from Paul that God is real because love is real, but kisses the wrong person. Wu knows Aster better than she knows herself. At the railway line, she runs alongside a departing train, covering a few steps, then stops, echoing the running man in Monit Suri’s Ek Villian, who squeezes every last second of eye contact with his woman until the train outpaces him. To Ellie, this kinetic act, so brief, epitomizes her wish for art to imitate life.
The cell phone is not unlike the portal in Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovitch. Released in 1999, it just happens to be the same year text-messaging went mainstream. The portal, perhaps, was a metaphor for this new way of communicating. Maxine (Catherine Keener) explains to Lotte (Cameron Diaz) that she loves her, but only as Malkovich, which is not so dissimilar to Aster falling for Ellie as Paul’s virtual self.
The camera doesn’t lie. POV shots tell Watts’ story better than words can, starting with the locker room scene. With a languorous north/south tilt, Watts ogles every square inch of Amanda in her frilly things. Watts sizes up her competition, but not for the reason that allowed Some Kind Of Wonderful to go into production. The gaze is more performative male (masculine) than female (feminine). Watts seems to be undressing Amanda Jones with her eyes, unconsciously touching the back of her head, and stomach, as if to quell butterflies. Keith Nelson has a type. But Watts doesn’t undergo a Pygmalion-like transformation to get his attention, as Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy), the gender-neutral goth, did for Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez) in The Breakfast Club.
And then there is the night exterior scene, when Keith asks his dream girl out. After she says yes, the establishing shot turns into a POV shot, in frame, because the camera pans subtly to the left, following Amanda returning to her friends instead of staying with Keith. Watts loves Amanda, literally from afar. Wu recreates this very instant from Some Kind Of Wonderful in the dinner date scene between Paul and Aster. The long rectangular diner window is representative of a movie screen. Whereas Ellie sits inside Paul’s truck watching the spectacle, Watts sprawls herself atop the engine hood of her two-tone colored jalopy. Watts is outside her vehicle, as in everybody but the film itself knows that she’s “out”. Ellie can see that Paul is in a state of “crash and burn.”
The conversation lags. Paul’s academic boot camp on philosophy, current events, and art isn’t panning out, which motivates Ellie to pick up the phone. She texts Aster as “Smith-Corona”. In essence, she’s writing Paul’s lines, referencing old technology, a typewriter, what John Hughes might have used to write his screenplays. The screen within the screen turns into a meta-film, sharing the same spectator/performer dynamic in Some Kind Of Wonderful, when Watts watches Keith and Amanda talk on stage from the cheap seats in an empty amphitheater.
That diner scene has the effect of explaining the psychology behind Watts’ masochistic insistence on being Keith’s chauffeur, the proverbial third wheel, sitting behind the wheel while donning a newsboy cap. Ellie, in an earlier scene, texts to Aster: “You should be with a good guy.” It’s equally important to Watts that her best friend gets what he wants, because she loves Keith, not “loves” loves him.
The Half Of It utilizes Noah Baumbach’s radical idea of platonic love trumping romantic love in Frances Ha to reframe Some Kind Of Wonderful, sussing out who Watts is bawling her eyes out for by telling essentially the same story with a stand-in whose sexual orientation is part of the official narrative. It’s not even the manufactured couple’s first kiss. In the garage, at Keith’s job as a mechanic, Watts convinces her best friend that he needs practice. During their clinch, sparks ignite. Watts lifts her leg up. Keith grabs the pocket of his best friend’s jeans. Most likely, though, boy and girl are fantasizing about the other girl and the same girl, Amanda Jones, respectively.
Mary Stuart Masterson, (and this is debatable), breaks character as Keith approaches Watts to seal the deal. She flinches. Like she’s going to kiss her brother. When Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) flips the queen of solitaire in the 1962 John Frankenheimer thriller, the war hero is made malleable by his controller. In addition to being a card game, solitaire can also mean “a single gem set alone,” like Ellie Chu in her train booth, like the diamond earrings Keith buys for Amanda Jones.
Before Ellie departs for college, she sees Aster Flores one last time. Aster is wearing a red dress; she is the “red queen”. Ellie’s controller gets the last word: “Find something good in Iowa, heathen,” prompting a boldness in Ellie that stands outside her normal introverted self. She runs back to Aster and plants a big one full on her lips.
Is that what Ellie’s controller wants?
She doesn’t flinch.
Alone on the train, Ellie is in control of herself, a Manchurian candidate for anything she sets her mind to in Grinnell.
Let the author know that you liked their article with a “heart” upvote!